Friday 18 March 2011

Judith Schalansky - Atlas of Remote Islands

Envy is not a pretty emotion. It makes you feel empty, and small. Thankfully my delight in Judith Schalansky's 'Atlas of Remote Islands' was great enough to overwhelm the occasional twinge of envy that she, and not I, has made something that I find so utterly covetable. (Made worse, let's be honest, when I just discovered that she's a year younger than me).

Of course, I couldn't have created this book: it grows entirely out of Schalansky's own self. Her discovery of the household atlas as an eight-year-old in East Germany - her incredulity that places out there exist:

I grew up with an atlas. And as a child of the atlas, I had never travelled. The fact that a girl in my class had actually been born in Helsinki felt unimaginable. ... To this day, I am baffled by Germans born, for example, in Nairobi or Los Angeles. Of course I know that Nairobi and Los Angeles exist - they are on the maps. But that someone has actually been there or even been born there still feels incredible to me.

her recognition early in life that maps depict only one of many stories:

Then I looked for my country: the German Democratic Republic. East Germans could not travel, only the Olympic team were allowed beyond our borders. It took a frighteningly long time to find. It was pink and tiny as my fingernail. This was hard to equate: at the Seoul Olympics we had been a force to reckon with, with had won more medals than the United States: how could we suddenly be so infinitesimal?

the sudden expanding of her horizons:

My love for atlases endured when a year later everything else changed: when it suddenly became possible to travel the world, and the country I was born in disappeared from the map. But by then I had already grown used to travelling through the atlas by finger, whispering foreign names to myself as I conquered distant worlds in my parents' sitting room.

Aesthetically, Schalansky's book is one of the most gorgeous things I've handled. This is another part of the uniqueness of her vision - it is all her work: writer, typographer, illustrator. She limits her palette to black, grey, plover-egg blue and brilliant orange, and then she makes magic within her own restrictions. Each double-page spread features on the right a scale drawing of the selected island, carefully etched with place names in fine cursive script; on the left, a catalogue of information, including alternate names, size, number of inhabitants or residents, distance from other land and a brief timeline (I am in love with the slanting lines of these of the distance measurements and timelines).

But the real magic is in the short pieces of text - almost prose poems - that accompany each of the 50 islands. The book is sub-titled 'Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will', and the entries lie somewhere between research and hallucination, like the author feel asleep over her papers and dreamed of these faraway places, awoke, and tried to capture that feeling of distance, strangeness, heat, cold, the incessant beat of the waves.

The tales range from Amelia Earhart's disappearance to a band of women stoving in a men's head with a shovel; killer crabs to infanticide; burning penguins to treasure maps. I limited myself to no more than five or six islands a day when reading the book, so I wouldn't become used to Schalansky's style and start skim reading. Instead, I tried to absorb each entry slowly, and to stay in her world. Every entry is in the present tense, whether the story is from the 1800s, the 2000s or an unnamed time - this lends them both an immediacy and a timelessness. My heart thrilled to some mentions - Thule has been part of my imagination since a childhood soaked in Rosemary Sutcliff's Roman Britain, Tristan da Cunha since sighting William Hodgkins' majestic oil paintings, the Scandinavian names feels strangely like home, a combination of poring over Norse myths and Roald Dahl's childhood biography.

I had to resist turning between each entry and a quick trip into Wikipedia to fact check and fill in the gaps. I'm glad now that I did, that rather than trying to turn the book into non-fiction I let it stay in the litterol space it was conceived in. I am happy to have that time inside Schalansky's imagination, and to let mine roam free too.

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